Strength in Numbers: Rush To Judgment

If you marveled how Oklahoma and <B>Quentin Griffin</B> choked Colorado with its own medicine on their way to another Big 12 championship, the contrast between the Sooners&#146; and Longhorns&#146; ground games may confound you, as it does me. OU has converted a weakness from last year into its strength, while UT still quivers from its post-<B>Ricky Williams</B> hangover after four years.

Texas has registered some gargantuan ground totals in contests since 1998, as evidenced by an uninterrupted streak of 1,000-yard rushers. But too often, that supposed asset becomes a liability when confronted by brawny defenders and generally fails to establish any consistency from week to week.

As a result, Texas has missed out for the sixth straight season on a BCS bowl invitation. It will play on New Years Day, just not with the big boys.

Rarely does one facet of a team or game determine who wins and loses. But with the Longhorns, you don’t need to rummage much further than the old fashioned running game to find a crystal ball gauge that predicts the outcome.

Mack Brown recently griped that fans preoccupy themselves too much with statistics, citing rushing numbers in particular. But his own web site (UT’s official site) announces Texas' owns a 40-0 record under him when it gains more yards rushing than the opposition. It doesn’t tell you Texas is only 7-15 when it gains less. [And three of those seven victories came against Nebraska, which usually gains more rushing yards than an opponent regardless of the outcome.]

Some may speculate the above eye-opening difference in the win-loss department is due to the superior team running time off the clock in the fourth quarter. The victor naturally gains more ground yards due to more reps. But UT owns a 36-2 record when it garners a higher yards-per-carry figure than its opposition, and goes just 11-13 when on the deficit side. Quality, not just quantity, plays a major role in the team’s success. Additionally, when the matchups indicated closer contests, the team that won the rushing battle won the game–every time. From 1998-2001, Texas was either favored or the underdog by a touchdown or less 16 times, going 8-0 when outrushing the opponent, but 0-8 when the opponent won the ground battle.

Riding the romps of Ricky in 1998, Texas only failed to run past the century mark twice in a game. But in 1999, the team missed that mark six times, with five of those resulting in losses. That established a distressing trend that continues to haunt the Horns in key moments. Since the Heisman Trophy winner departed, the Longhorns have fallen shy of the 100-yard mark an astounding 20 times, leading to all 12 of the defeats they’ve suffered.

Nowhere is the importance of rushing ineptitude displayed more than versus UT’s Red River rival in Dallas. When asked following another putrid overland performance why his team cannot run the football against OU, Brown replied, "I don’t know." Orangebloods are perplexed too, Coach.

Texas continues to possess a plethora of talented offensive personnel, including the first player (running back Cedric Benson) to ever grace the cover of Dave Campbell’s Texas Football as a high schooler. But in the last three games against Stoops and the Sooners, the Horns have rushed for a combined 73 yards!

UT’s head man knows he has a problem in October: "If you get beat by Oklahoma, it puts us in bad shape," Brown said. "Oklahoma is a game we need to get better in." Texas fans say "Amen." That early loss saddles Texas with a "no lose/lose" position. It cannot lose the rest of the year and hopes several teams ahead do in order to re-enter the national title picture.

All off-season, Mack emphasized the importance of improving the running game. The offense replied by eking out 27 yards on the ground in the season opener against North Texas. Only Louisiana-Lafayette managed less against the Mean Green, while Alabama rolled up 336.

For the season, UT rushed for the lowest yards-per-game average since 1999, the year after it lost Ricky Williams and four long-time starters in the offensive line. This season’s yards-per-carry average of 3.4 is the worst under Mack Brown. The squad overcame rushing deficiencies–including allowing big totals defensively on occasion–a few times this fall, but those rushing deficiencies also contributed to both losses, especially the defeat in Dallas.

The suggestion here isn’t for Texas to become another Nebraska and treat the pass as evil. But the staff must emphasize the run in deeds, not just words. This begins in the spring with a shift in practice time toward it and carries through the fall. For the first time since Mack’s inaugural season in Austin, he won’t wield an experienced quarterback. A strong rushing attack will provide the kind of security blanket the newcomer signal-caller will need if the Horns hope to break their championship drought under Brown.

Bert Hancock has owned two college football-related web sites and was designated "Lead Writer" of one of the first independent web sites dedicated strictly to UT sports. At the University of Texas, where he received a Bachelor of Business degree, his area of specialty was in statistics and probabilities. His "Strength In Numbers" column appears weekly on InsideTexas.com.


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